Empowering NGOs to use video in human rights advocacy

WITNESS empowers human rights organizations around the world to incorporate video as an advocacy tool in their work. Rooted in the power of personal testimonies and in the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, the videos of WITNESS and its partners have been used as evidence in legal proceedings; to corroborate allegations of human rights violations; to complement written reports to international and regional organizations that provide a counterweight to official versions of a country’s human rights performance; to stimulate grassroots education and mobilization; to provide information for news broadcasts; to promote human rights via the internet; and to produce documentaries for broadcast on television worldwide. 

Founded in 1992 and based in New York City, WITNESS has created partnerships with more than 150 groups in 50 countries on a variety of issues, ranging from the “social cleansing” of street children in Central America and sexual abuse of women and girls during Sierra Leone’s civil war to sweatshops in the United States and the plight of displaced people in Burma.

WITNESS chooses partners who seek to build a long-term capacity to use video effectively and also seeks spe­cific campaign opportunities where video can tip the balance between success and failure. Once a partnership is established, WITNESS provides the group with video equipment and training, then follows up with workshops in camera techniques, intensive instruction in using video for human rights work, systemic evaluation of video foot­age, post-production assistance and constructive feedback to create powerful documentaries.

WITNESS and its partners then create video advocacy campaigns around the footage collected. These campaigns include many components, including broadcast and distribution platforms, collaboration with other organiza­tions and networks, targeted screenings before key audiences and opportunities for individual viewers to take action. They may be as targeted as using video to influence a small group of key decision-makers or as broad as trying to mobilize youth around a particular issue. Footage is also kept in the WITNESS Archive, where it is avail­able to the global community as a unique resource of human rights information.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

WITNESS recognizes that, depending on the local context, a human rights advocate may be protected or endan­gered by using a camera. WITNESS uses the experience of its staff and partners to help others create safe and appropriate policies for their situations. It also stresses the importance of trust between the person filming and the person being filmed and clearly explains the risks and benefits of speaking to a camera.